Fort Ward’s residents’ journey from Civil War to civil rights
Walk through the 34 acres of Fort Ward Park in Alexandria’s West End and beneath the drying late-summer grasses and moss-laden trees lies some of the most overlooked history in this famously history-proud town.
The remains of the Civil War fort, an important Union outpost, are well-marked and documented. But less is known about the African American residents who, starting in the 1880s, bought land, built homes, raised their children and buried their dead there.
After a half-century of neglect, the city government is moving toward formal recognition of those who bridged the period between the Civil War and the modern civil rights era. A three-year archaeological investigation found 40 unmarked graves, the city announced last week, as well as 25 sites detailing life in the neighborhood known as The Fort or Seminary.
A handsome brochure was published two months ago, oral histories have been collected and posted online, and a new series of historical markers that tell the African American story is expected to be erected within weeks. The creation of a plan to control the future of the park is next on the city’s agenda.
Residents, many of whom are descendants of the original homeowners, pushed for the investigation and want preservation and recognition. But they remain suspicious and wary. Take the issue of how many graves are in the park; the city says there are 43 while residents say there are far more, although even they are not sure of the number.
“They’re picking up what they want to pick up,” said Frances Terrell, one of the descendants, as she walked through what used to be a city maintenance yard surrounding the gravestone of one of the most prominent residents. “They don’t want to find graves —”
“African American graves,” said fellow civic activist Lena Rainey.
“ — desecrating their park,” Terrell added.
From the 1880s almost until the city bought out the last African American families in 1960, people buried their dead behind their Fort Ward Park homes, sometimes in unmarked plots. One family, the Jacksons, set up a private cemetery for their family members and others, although no markers remain.
Another cemetery is owned and maintained by Oakland Baptist Church, which was founded by black families in the area. But the oldest residents say that the graveyard used to be much bigger than it is now and that they suspect many graves are outside the small fenced property.
City officials said they had already begun work on reclaiming the history of the residents of The Fort in 2008, when Glenn Eugster began to complain about the dumpsters the city was storing — without permits — in the park, adjacent to his home. The dumpsters and city maintenance trucks, it turned out, were parked on and around some of the graves.
Eugster, a retiree from the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, armed himself with a camera and documented city mulch piles stored on top of graves, and broken and missing headstones, which he blames on city workers. He uncovered a 1962 city document showing grave sites, plans he said officials had forgotten or overlooked.
City officials say they have yet to find any evidence supporting his allegations.
Then Eugster, who is white, got to know his African American neighbors. They educated him about their history, and together they began to make a civic ruckus. Other residents and politicians began to pay attention.
Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, and Pam Cressey, the city archaeologist, say they will continue to try to find all the graves and create a complete history of the people who turned the fort into a neighborhood. They point to a continuing partnership with descendants, a citizens advisory committee and the Oakland Baptist Church.
“It’s their story, but it’s also the larger story of America,” Cressey said. “The Civil War led to their opportunity to be on this land and prosper there. Civil rights led, in part, to the demise of this property. . . . For me, this is the best story I’ve studied in the last 35 years here, and it connects with the second-best story, Freedmen’s Cemetery.”
Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery, on the south end of Alexandria, is another historically African American burial ground where hundreds of escaped “contraband” and freed slaves as well as veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops were buried. Years ago, the soldiers’ graves were moved, markers disappeared, and a gas station and office building were built on the graveyard. About 15 years ago, the city began work to reclaim and memorialize the land and lives.
That gas station is not forgotten, so it’s easy for Fort Ward activists to believe rumors of plans to do the same with the land of their ancestors, only this time with picnic pavilions or ballfields. Mallamo said that there are no such plans and that, in fact, the city has removed some picnic pavilions. Residents will have a say in future uses of the land, he said, through the park management plan process. The city is spending almost $2 million, apart from the cost of the existing Fort Ward Museum, to memorialize the history, he said.
Still, Eugster said, it’s been a major effort to get the city to give the same kind of attention to a community of former slaves as it has given to the earthwork fort and the myriad artifacts still being found there.
“This doesn’t have the same curiosity value as a Minie ball or a Civil War button,” he said, hefting a stray foundation brick. “What many in this group have done is take on the job of speaking for the dead. These folks want their history back, and they have a right to it.”
Residents say they’ll continue to work on identifying and preserving their ancestors’ story, even though city officials once told Terrell that they didn’t know The Fort land contained house foundations or graves.
“We were here for a long, long time, and for them to say they didn’t know it, well, hello?” she said. “We are still here.”